Photograph © Bernie Ng.
SOFT MACHINE by Choy Ka Fai
Is a delightful and refreshing surprise in this year’s da:ns festival. Choy Ka Fai presents a selection of four contemporary dance works, the output from his research across 13 cities and 5 Asian countries, where Ka Fai met and interviewed 88 contemporary dancers, choreographers and curators.
Divided into two performances, Part A presents Surjit Nongmeikapam, Choy Ka Fai and Rianto; Part B presents the magnificent duo Xiao Ke & Zi Han and Yuya Tsukahara, Keigo Mikajiri and Choy Ka Fai. What stands out in this production, is the variety of the work , its aesthetics, concept and creative processes – part confessional and part documentary. For me, SoftMachine is the highlight of this year’s da:ns festival, revealing innovative, original and new contemporary dance work.
Part A starts with a documentary video where Ka Fai and Nongmeikapam introduce varying stereotypes of contemporary dance. The athletic versus the human. Humor punctuates the first half of the performance where both choreographer and dancer illustrate and play on stage with different dance styles – Ka Fai uses humor to bring onto the stage questions that dancers face when producing their own work, suggesting a parallel between race and native culture of an Indian dancer. The expectation to look and sound exotic when performing Indian contemporary dance. Touching on elements of Indian classical dances, we are confronted with a dialogue performance with the audience keeping this performance dynamic, but lacking some finesse of the actual dance material.
It is difficult to not compare this work with NDT2 Cacti by Alexander Ekman, also part of the festival. On one hand, Ekman presents a humorous dance piece that explores in depth the issues surrounding western contemporary dance such as its presentation, audience perception and creative process from a dancers’ point of view. Although Ka Fai’s “Soft Machine” Part A may fall short to deliver very elaborate and crafted dance material, he compensates with cut-throat dialogue with Nongmeikapam, presenting the situation itself; the debate surrounding expectations from a contemporary Indian dancer presenting work to a western audience.
The second half of Soft Machine Part A presents Rianto from Banyumas, Indonesia. Specialized in the traditional erotic dance of Lengger –Rianto explores both feminine and masculine aspects of a dancer. The performance is sensitive to both genders, as he carefully delivers both the female and male roles. Rianto loses his sarongs and costume during the performance to reveal himself as an individual living in Japan. The documentary is the counterpoint to the variety of dance styles interpreted by Rianto, part confessional part performance this experiment on stage opens the 4th wall and invites the audience to understand very deeply the performer on stage. Carefully crafted dance material is exhibited throughout the performance, sharing nuances and influences from Javanese traditional dance forms.
Part B of Soft Machine is a deeply touching documentary and dance piece making the audience aware of the consequences and challenges of art makers in China.
The piece introduces the audience to the intimate lives of duo Xiao Ke & Zi Han, living constantly under surveillance in China – speaking of censorship and nationalism in a time where Chinese artists are arrested indefinitely with no proper cause. The documentary provides insight into the adversities of Chinese artists and the liberation they conquer when performing abroad. Furnished with symbolism across its setting and props, the most poignant being the red cloth which is shredded on stage – perhaps symbolizing the Chinese national flag.
The second half of Soft Machine Part B bursts from the end of the first duet, modifying the stage to establish an entirely new ‘situation’. We are presented with a documentary while Ka Fai helps Yuya Tsukahara build what later becomes a recreation park bench.
In the video we understand Contact Gonzo, led by Tsukahara (founding member) we can witness several experiments of Contact Gonzo, thus it looks like a cross of contact improvisation where the second body of the duet is actually an object such as a bench or a wall, contact gonzo is traditionally delivered by two people. Neither dance nor a martial art, it is an exchange of weight, love, frustration and human reason. Presented on stage as a challenge between Ka Fai, Mikajiri and Tsukahara this performance is interrupted by the flash of a disposable camera, registering the smallest moments, the ridiculous, the painful and sometimes the sweet moments of a conflict. There is a fair share of parody and comedy when the performers are exposed to an explosion of tangerines to their bodies, propelled at high speed from a massive elastic band attached to the original park bench.
What is interesting in this performance situation is the reaction in real time of the performers, with the juxtaposition of the photographs taken seconds before the tangerine hits their face, arms, private areas. The vulnerability is expressed throughout this dance piece; it is another confessional performance, this time exposing Tsukahara knowledge and passion for Contact Gonzo.
SoftMachine is an affirmation on the individuality and struggles of contemporary dance artists across Asia. Ka Fai investigates and extends the boundaries of choreography into the documentary, it is an innovative and bold production contemplating dance and life as an inseparable contour.
Da:ns festival runs at The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay from the 9th to the 18th of October 2015.